Motherless Brooklyn

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A pretty good movie. Edward Norton wrote it for the screen (adapting a Jonathan Lethem novel), directed, and stars. A cynical take: he's thinking Oscars! Unfortunately, it got zero Oscar nominations (but one Golden Globe nomination). Don't know what happened there. Maybe it was too long. (Two hours, twenty-four minutes.)

It's set in 1950s New York, and Norton plays Lionel Essrog, who works for an investigatory firm headed by his father-figure mentor, Frank (Bruce Willis). Unfortunately, Frank keeps Lionel and his co-investigators mostly in the dark on a job that gets him seriously killed. Lionel and the rest of the crew try to find out what Frank was working on, and bring his killers to justice.

Lionel has Tourette's Syndrome, which causes him to blurt out uncontrollable streams of words at unpredictable times. This bothers people a lot less than you might think. Pretty soon, he's made connections to New York's major development guru, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a thinly-disguised Robert Moses. Opposing Moses is a plucky activist, Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones), an equally thinly-diguised Jane Jacobs. But also in the mix is Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who unexpectedly becomes a love interest.

Well, it's long and the mystery's solution is pretty sordid. Alec Baldwin is well-known these days for doing a one-note Trump impression on Saturday Night Live, and I'm pretty sure some of that leaks into his performance here, where Moses talks about his, um, liaison with a woman decades past.

The period details are pretty amazing: lots of old cars and storefronts. And a resurrected Penn Station.

Knives Out

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Netflix's algorithm thought I'd love this movie. It was correct. Smart non-formulaic writing, sympathetic heroes, fine acting, interesting plot. That's all I ask.

Daniel Craig plays legendary private investigator Benoit Blanc. (In the mold of Hecule Poirot, a deductive wizard with a sharp eye and some endearing quirks. Like singing showtunes when left to his own devices.) He's been hired by an anonymous client to investigate the grisly death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer): was it suicide, or murder most foul?

There are suspects galore, many played by actors and actresses of renown. Mostly members of the large Thrombey clan, but there's also that pretty nurse; it becomes obvious pretty quickly that she knows more than she's telling.

As an extra bonus, if you pay close attention to the small talk between characters, seeming irrelevancies become important later. I love that too. (You can go to the IMDB trivia page to see if you missed any.)

Joker

[1.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Wow, I really disliked this movie.

It's the tale of poor, mentally ill, Arthur Fleck, doomed to be a loser in the hellhole that is Gotham City. All he wants to do is to be a standup comedian. But unfortunately he's not funny. And he doesn't understand enough about people to even act funny. And part of his mental illness is his propensity to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times.

So he becomes a homicidal maniac. Hey, who wouldn't?

Now, there's a Batman tie-in, of course. Bruce Wayne's father, Thomas, is portrayed as an uncaring plutocrat. (Think Mike Bloomberg, except more explicit in his disdain for the less fortunate.) The only thing to wonder about is whether Fleck is gonna shoot him in front of Bruce, or someone else. (Spoiler, because I don't care: someone else.)

The details are thoroughly unpleasant, and go on far too long. But your mileage may vary, as it did with the Oscar folks; they nominated it in a bunch of categories, including Best Picture. And Joaquin Phoenix won best actor.

And the IMDB raters have it (as I type) as number 48 on the best movies of all time. Sheesh. Maybe I was just in a bad mood.

The Lavender Hill Mob

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I have the disquieting feeling that I've already seen this, back in the days when I didn't obsessively blog about every movie I watched. I seem to have a vague recollection of the beginning ("Hey! That's Audrey Hepburn, isn't it?") and the end (no spoilers). And absolutely nothing in between. Ah well.

Alec Guinness plays Henry Holland, a guy for whom the noun "milquetoast" was invented. A self-described nonentity disguising an avaricious and criminal streak, he's in the fortuitous position of accompanying British gold from the smelter to the bank. He's worked out most of the heist details, all he needs is a way to smuggle the purloined metal out of the country, where he can sell it on the black market.

Enter Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway, who really should be singing "With a Little Bit of Luck" in this movie too). He's got a factory that casts base metal into tourist "geegaws". (That's actually the name of the company.) But there's no reason he can't use gold…

Anyway, it's very understated comedy, but dreary 1951 England must have been in the mood to laugh at nearly anything. The best part is Henry reading a crime novel to the elderly Mrs. Chalk, titled You'd Look Good in a Shroud. Oh, heck, here it is:

Henry: Where did we get?

Mrs. Chalk: Duke Milligan was about to take a gander at Mickey the Greek's hideout.

Henry: Oh yes, here we are. "I handed my fedora to a hatcheck girl with all that Venus de Milo had got and then more, and I was admiring the more when I glimpsed something in the back of this frail that set my underwear creeping up on me like it had legs."

Mrs. Chalk: I know that feeling well.

Henry: "A guy had soft-shoed out of the door from the gaming room as quiet as a snake on tip-belly, and I didn't need my case history of Smiling Abe Montana to know that sonny boy was his number-one triggerman, Ricky the Filipino."

Mrs. Chalk: I thought it was Little Boy Shultz who carried the rod for Mr. Montana.

Henry: It was, Mrs. Chalk, but surely you remember? Montana found Shultz taking liberties with that lady.

Mrs. Chalk: Yes, yes, they took him for a ride. Only last night, wasn't it? Oh, I must be getting old. Read on, Mr. Holland.

Spenser Confidential

[0.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This Netflix streaming dreck is a "real movie" with an MPAA rating (R) and everything, so I'm counting it as a watched movie.

Reader, if you're thinking about watching this because you've maybe read some of the Spenser books, or maybe you liked the old TV show with Robert Urich? Eh, don't bother. I've read all the Spenser novels, even after Ace Atkins took over writing duties after Robert B. Parker died. Other than three characters in this movie having the same names as the book characters (Spenser, Hawk, Henry Cimoli), and being filmed in the Boston area, that's the extent of the resemblance.

Oh, I forgot: there's also Pearl the Wonder Dog, but she's is transformed into some sort of droopy-eared beagle.

No Susan, she's apparently too classy and smart; instead we have Cissy, a foulmouthed ditz played by Iliza Shlesinger.

The movie is allegedly based on Wonderland, a post-Parker novel, but … yeah, that's bogus too. (Our image is the retitled paperback.) The moviemakers seem to have felt that the novel's plot was too cerebral and short of action set-pieces. Instead, we have a lot of choreographed fistfights, one sleazy sex scene, and a bad guy mastermind I figured out in his first scene.

Here, Spenser is an ex-cop, and also an ex-con, due to his pummelling of a cop he suspects is dirty. Years later, he gets out, and has dreams of becoming a semi driver, and moving to Arizona. But that whole dirty cop thing is still going, and the cop he beat up years back is brutally murdered. So he's dragged back into it.

In other disquieting news, Colleen Camp is … well, way different now than she was back in the 70s-80s. Sigh.

Jojo Rabbit

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Like probably everyone else in the movie-watching world, I had my doubts about this. But I admit I was surprised at how well this worked for me.

Jojo is a 10-year-old boy. Unfortunately, he lives in 1944-5 Germany, and he's fully invested in the whole Nazi thing. To the extent that his imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. He's off to Hitler Youth camp, but to the despair of the camp counselor and most of his fellow young Nazis, he still retains a few shreds of decency (being unable to strangle a bunny on command) and is extraordinarily inept at soldiering. That last bit leads to a near-fatal unfortunate grenade incident. Which (in turn) sends him, limping and scarred, back home to Mom (Scarlett Johansson).

Where he discovers that Mom is hiding a young Jewish girl.

None of this sounds remotely as if it could be funny. But it is ("at least for me") because imaginary-friend Hitler is a boob, and everyone else realizes the absurdity in all the mayhem.

The movie was nominated for six Oscars (including Best Picture) and won one ("Best Adapted Screenplay"). Scarlett Johansson was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and I think Sam Rockwell was robbed by not being nominated for his role as Captain Klenzendorf, a cynical German soldier relegated to teaching Hitler Youth.

Venom

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Surprisingly good!

A megazillionaire is sponsoring space exploration for his own nefarious purposes. Mankind is destroying the planet, so he plans to set up shop Out There somewhere so he can live like a space emperor. Or something; I may not have been paying attention when the evil plot was explained.

But one of his probes returns with deadly aggressive metallic snot creatures, some of which immediately get out of control. They are "symbiotes", who like to glom onto humans, infiltrate their bodies, and take over, not always successfully. The bad guy sees them as someone he can do business with, and sets about experimenting with human subjects. Who are not providing informed consent. Results are discouraging and disgusting.

But the overall goal is for the bad guy to bring back lots of these creatures to Earth and take over.

Enter our hero, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). Fired from his investigative journalist gig because he tried to investigate the wrong guy (our villain), he blunders into the lab/lair where the aliens are being held and… oops, he's taken over. Fortunately, he survives, and develops a complex relationship with his symbiote, aka Venom. And they mutually decide to do that thing heroes do: defeat the villain's plot.

It's even more ludicrous than the usual comic book movie, but maintains a surprising amount of humor. Venom and Eddie have a contentious relationship and bicker a lot. Remember The Odd Couple? Yeah, like that.


Last Modified 2020-03-02 8:50 AM EDT

Flirting

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This 1991 Australian movie, Flirting, is a sequel to a 1987 Australian movie The Year My Voice Broke, which is unavailable at Netflix and Amazon Prime. A US-playable DVD of that previous movie will set you back a cool $119.99 at Amazon.

Wow! Why the availability difference? Easy explanation for that: Flirting has Nicole Kidman (albeit in a supporting role) and The Year My Voice Broke does not. (This was, IMDB says, Nicole's last Australian feature before she hit it big internationally.)

Anyway: it's the story of Danny (Noah Taylor) and Thandiwe (Thandie Newton), at their respective adjacent boys-only and girls-only schools in early-1960s Australia. Both are unusual, Danny being a nerdy intellectual fond of Sartre and Marx, Thandiwe being from Africa.

(By the way, anyone familiar with Thandie Newton's later films will find her 16-year-old self hard to recognize here.)

Both must put up with the respective prejudices of their loutish classmates. But they eventually acquire friends too, and also eventually find each other. Romance blooms. And complications ensue.

So it's kind of a sweet coming-of-age movie. Unfortunately, Thandie Newton apparently got abused by the writer/director, John Duigan. Kind of a down-under Harvey Weinstein She took 20 years to reveal this, but judging by his IMDB page, he's not done a lot movie-wise since that revelation.

Justice League

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I was a little surprised I liked this movie as much as I did. It's a solid three stars: I was entertained for a couple hours, didn't fall asleep much, and don't think I would have regretted not seeing it.

Let me tell you, though: Gal Gadot probably added a star all by herself.

So at the end of the last movie, Superman was "dead". And the world is menaced, as worlds are, by Steppenwolf, who's looking to put together three powerful cubes of alien technology, and employs a lot of nasty flying monkeys to assist.

Batman is the first to notice the problem, realizes he doesn't have much of a chance to thwart this scheme on his own. So he recruits all the other superpeople he knows about: Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, and a new guy "Cyborg", of whom I was previously unaware.

Still not good enough. But if you think Superman is going to stay dead, … well, of course not. We all know better.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This makes four out of last year's ten Oscar Best Picture nominees I've seen so far. Not too shabby. It didn't win Best Picture (booo!) but Brad Pitt got one for Best Supporting Actor, and it also got one for Production Design (which even I noticed was amazing). And it was nominated for seven more.

Just a quibble, though: Brad Pitt nominated for supporting actor? Come on. I think he had more screen time than Leonardo DiCaprio.

As an extra bonus, the New Yorker film critic calls this movie "obscenely regressive". No wonder I liked it so much.

Anyway: it follows buddies Rick Dalton (Leo) and Cliff Booth (Brad) in 1969 Hollywood. Rick is a fading action star: think Steve McQueen, if his career had fizzled after Wanted Dead or Alive. Cliff is his longtime stunt double, and personal chauffeur/gofer.

And Rick just happens to live next door to Roman Polanski's place in the Hollywood hills. Bouncy, bubbly, pregnant Sharon Tate is living there. And there are these filthy hippies hanging around, associated with (hey, that's Dewey Crowe) an aspiring musician named "Charlie". Oh oh.

It's a Quentin Tarantino flick, so there's a lot of swearing, smoking, and… surprisingly, not as much cynicism and violence as I would have expected. (Okay, there's a lot, but … just not as much as I would have expected.) QT clearly has a lot of affection for the time and place. And I had a lot of fun watching.